Rikki Li is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2016, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. An English Writing and Psychology major at the University of Pittsburgh, she is studying abroad in London this semester.
This week, Rikki heads to the Chelsea Harbour Hotel for afternoon tea in celebration of her 21st birthday and then reflects on this tradition of privilege.
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For my 21st birthday last week, I decided to skip the conventional tradition of bar-hopping and instead took my friends to afternoon tea. While this is something I’ve wanted to do ever since coming to London, I was apprehensive about both the price and the atmosphere that would come with the fancy three-tiered trays and upscale hotel venues.
Fortunately, there were many websites out there that helped to at least mitigate the price of a traditional afternoon tea experience. In particular, I used afternoonteaonline.co.uk, which gave both a comprehensive list of tea locations all over the United Kingdom while also offering provisional discounts for specific venues. My friends and I ended up choosing the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, whose tea service had been reduced from £25 to £18 per person for the weekend.
The tea experience itself felt like something out of a fairytale. We dressed in the only fancy clothes we had brought to London, knotting ties and strapping into heels, and boarded the Overground to Imperial Wharf. Unlike my experiences with the Underground, the Overground was unerringly smooth and dreamlike as it glided across the rails—we felt almost compelled to just sit in silence and watch the 3pm sunlight slanting in through the windows.
By the time we reached our destination, it was like we had passed through a veil. The hotel staff led us to a table overlooking the yacht-studded harbor and brought out pots of Earl Gray, English Breakfast, and peppermint tea. Then, as we were stirring in our sugar cubes and foamed milk, the staff returned once more with three-tiered stands of sandwiches, scones, and trifles, embellished with carnations and violets. Decadence at its finest.
We ate for a long while, spreading jam into every soft divot of our sultana scones and nibbling at our crustless sandwiches of egg salad and watercress, brie and quince paste, ham and seeded mustard. I can’t say for sure, but I think we were subconsciously trying to preserve the illusion of wealth and leisure, the curious, transient ether of timelessness, stretched thin between us like strands of spider web silk.
It was lovely, so lovely, but there was something about the experience that sat, undigested and troubled, in the center of my chest. Looking back, I think it boils down to my inability to reconcile my afternoon of indulgence with the stark reality of the actual world. As we returned home and walked past our usual route in our suits and dresses, the homeless people on the streets rattling their paper cups of change seemed to pull our attention more than ever. I realized that, while having afternoon tea in London is certainly a cultural experience, it is a cultural experience that’s only accessible to the privileged.
This realization isn’t something to pat myself on the back for, and it’s not something particularly new. It’s just a statement of fact, and it’s a statement I should reflect on a lot more than I actually do. Admittedly, I think sometimes I like to comfort myself by saying that I didn’t “choose” to be privileged, but that’s a spineless excuse. No one “chooses” to live in poverty either. And, most of all, just because we aren’t at fault for something doesn’t mean we are free from the responsibility.
Sometimes, I like to think of humanity as a single, functioning body. Every muscle, every bone, and every nerve serves its own unique and crucial purpose. Sometimes, we hit a snag—a ligament tears, or a lymph node swells, or a vessel bursts. However, depending on the problem, we aren’t always diligent about setting things right; maybe it’s too expensive, or we just don’t have time. Eventually, these problems build up. The body fails.
If humanity is like a body, then every group and minority and class and population is a constituent. The difficulty lies in attending to the needs of every part without overwhelming the collective whole. I don’t have the answer to this, but I suppose if I did, I wouldn’t be asking the question in the first place.
But I’m trying to figure it out. I’ll keep trying.
Rikki's journey continues every Tuesday so stay tuned.